From Mandela to Mbeki and Zuma: How the spooks became obsessed with 'political intelligence gathering'

Some years back, a senior spook travelled to the United States to visit the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). There he found a group of experts from various fields in the office of the CIA director, discussing what trends were likely to change the world in the coming years.

They discussed smart electricity grids, batteries, electric cars, and "smart" materials such as smart phones.

Back home, the South African intelligence services were more consumed by internal factional battles surrounding the president than the trends of the future, so much so that they missed one of the biggest threats to the sovereignty of the country: state capture.

This is the kind of intelligence blunder that is borne out by the kinds of problems highlighted by the explosive High-Level Panel Report on the State Security Agency (SSA), released by President Cyril Ramaphosa last weekend.

The report decries the politicisation of the civilian intelligence agencies, which it says began around 2005 – the year Jacob Zuma was fired as deputy president of the country – and later charged with rape (of which he was acquitted). It says that this politicisation intensified around 2009, when Zuma became state president.

According to the former spook, in those early years of the Zuma presidency, "friends" of the president were starting to irk in intelligence circles. Former intelligence heads Mo Shaik, Gibson Njenje, and Jeff Maqetuka were fired when they wanted to investigate the Guptas.

But it was worse than that.

For the last decade and more, our spooks have been preoccupied with "political intelligence gathering" – looking under every rock for signs of "social unrest" and spying on political foes, like protagonists in a Cold War spy-versus-spy novel.

Anyone seen to be rocking the boat – journalists, civil society, unions – was fair game.

The SSA report attests to this unlawful intelligence gathering on perfectly benign organisations, which exist in any country with even the faintest regard for human rights.

While the SSA is legitimately mandated to do security vetting, what threat these organisations posed to national security was indeed a secret known only to the state.

But it was even worse than that.

The CIA was issuing warnings to South Africa that terrorist cells were operating in the country.

"[The minister] told them to fuck off," News24 was reliably told.

Incompetence

Few thought the country could pull off an incident-free 2010 Soccer World Cup in a crime-ridden country like South Africa. 

"I still believe there's enormous capacity in the intelligence services," the former spook says, pointing to this success.

But the world is changing, and our intelligence services need to move beyond navel-gazing.

Says the former spook: "Artificial intelligence, the internet of things, cyber security… there is a role there for intelligence services to be on top of these developments, and to help government stay ahead of the curve. You need data scientists, computer scientists, mathematicians – skills that are highly competed for in the world. Do we have those skills in our intelligence services? I don't think so."

The SSA report makes the World Cup intelligence success look like a glitch in the matrix.

Politics

The report makes it clear that the ANC's factional battles are a big part of the problem.

However, Ronnie Kasrils, who became intelligence minister in 2005, says understanding what came before 2005 is vital to unpacking what went wrong at the SSA.

The apartheid regime was "taking out people" as early as the 1970s and was infiltrating the ANC from at least a decade earlier, he says.

"The drive to protect the ANC and its leaders meant that they had to be very tough. The regime was very, very ruthless. It's a life and death struggle. Within such a context, and it is akin to what liberation movements were facing all over the world, a great deal of paranoia grows, which is what the enemy plays on," says Kasrils.

This is why intelligence requires maturity and level-headedness, he says; people who can read the difference between real spies and fake ones. In the absence of this, "awful mistakes" happen.

Mandela

This sense of inward-looking suspicion was birthed in a real struggle, with real dangers. But it became a paranoia and clung to the ANC's DNA like a genetic disease.

Things became murkier still in the Mandela-period as the government tried to replace apartheid's "ruthless" security apparatus with something resembling what an intelligence agency should look like in a democracy.

It added new levels of paranoia to mix.

Mandela himself was less inclined to use the new intelligence services as his personal spy agency. South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says the intelligence services were also less inclined to play to any one politician's whims, in part because "Mandela was a little bit authoritarian".

Vavi, a former general secretary of Cosatu, was a strong supporter of Zuma and endorsed his campaign to succeed Mbeki. He is now a fierce critic of Zuma.

"Mandela could impose policies without discussion. We hated that. But still we had no doubt that he believed he was doing the right thing. He didn't have people whispering in his ear," he said.

The Mandela government also wanted to protect the political independence of the country's spies, so as to prevent them from remaining partial to either the ANC or the apartheid government.

Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki had other ideas. (Mbeki declined to be interviewed for this article.) He appointed the first minister of intelligence in 1999. Many in the intelligence community were nervous about this development, as it had previously been decided that there would only be a coordinator who would be the administrative link between the military, civilian and police intelligence services, and the executive.

There was no getting around the fact that a minister was a political post. Insiders refer to Mbeki's paranoia that took hold during his fight with his deputy.

In years that followed, intelligence factions settled around the giant Mbeki and Zuma factions like star dust forming rings around giant planets in the cosmos.

Kasrils says it took him about six months in the post of minister of intelligence to realise how badly the spooks were being used in the battles at play.

He describes what it was like in those heady days.

"I was most troubled. I could see that top officials were unreliable and could not be trusted. I stayed up late at night trawling through reports trying to figure out what was wrong; looking for clues which I did come across and which set me on the path to uncover the rot.

"What was worse was discovering ANC, SACP and Cosatu leaders who I tried to warn were simply not interested as they had either been genuinely hoodwinked by Zuma's cries about a conspiracy against him by Mbeki or simply did not want to believe the facts I placed before them which would get in the way of their ambitions to unseat the then president and their ambitions to become ministers.

"The weakness of the [SSA] report is the failure to analyse the events of 2005-2006. The report doesn't even appear to consider the Inspector General's report into the fabricated emails which link with the illegal interception of the Scorpions and the spy tapes that emerged."

All of this played into Zuma's victimhood narrative.

"He had us all fooled," says Vavi. "It helped Zuma to go big time into this conspiracy theory. But it was not true. Most of it was proven to be a fallacy." 

"Zuma is a master (at intelligence). He listens to the people who come to him at night – this parallel intelligence (network). He listens to conspiracy theories the whole night. But he has been abusing his position as former intelligence to blackmail many people into silence," Vavi says, noting Zuma's response to the SSA report, which was to hint that it was compiled by apartheid spies and threatening to "open a can of worms".

Says Kasrils, "People came to Zuma's rescue by reinforcing his conspiracy theories".

If the intelligence services had been deeply political before Polokwane, they were almost irreparably political after.

Attempts to fix things were stopped in Parliament.

For instance, Kasrils wanted the Protection of Information Bill, an apartheid relic that was clearly unconstitutional, revised, and a public interest defence clause entered into the bill that would protect legitimate whistle blowers and the media.

But a portfolio committee on intelligence heavily aligned to Zuma blocked him, on this and other attempts at reform, he says.

Zuma

None of the more than 20 references to Zuma (although the report does not mention him) in the SSA report are flattering.

Zuma's very first mistake was to establish the SSA, an amalgamation of the NIA and the South African Secret Service (Sass) by presidential proclamation in 2009. The Constitution says he can only do this "through legislation".

Borne in unlawfulness, the SSA has been pummelled by factional whims, criminal activity, and operational ineptitude, as the report attests. Reforming it will be no easy task. But if there is any hope at all, one thing is clear: political intelligence gathering by the SSA must stop.